“To make you see”—Essays on Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

I have always been a huge fan of Joseph Conrad; I even wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on Lord Jim. But it’s difficult for me to read him today because of the powerful sway (and negative effect) he has on my writing. Graham Greene felt the same way. “The heavy hypnotic style,” he called it.

Conrad has affected many writers that way. The Polish-born genius wrote his first novel at the age of 36, in English, after twenty years working as a merchant seaman in the Far East, Africa and South America. He not only became one of the great storytellers of his time, but also a remarkable stylist who expanded what fiction could do. In other words, he is the quintessential writer’s writer.

My college thesis concentrated on Conrad’s construction of character in Lord Jim, but in order to do that I had to read widely and intensively, both Conrad and the critics.

That wonderful excuse allowed me to trace the development of Conrad’s first-person narrative technique, in the guise of Charles Marlow, first in “Youth” and Heart of Darkness, then in Lord Jim, and later in Chance. I got to see how that technique added layers of perspective and irony to his tales, and how it was fundamental to the exploration of themes that preoccupied him. This literary innovation* became the model for some of the next century’s great novels, including Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

Reading Conrad’s Nostromo that year, I got to experience one of the most harrowing existential episodes in modern literature, when the journalist Dacoud rows out to sea on the blackest of nights and sinks into the deepest of despairs.

I got to watch time stop and then explode in one of the most sophisticated political novels ever written, The Secret Agent.

I got to read Conrad’s remarkable prefaces, where he carefully distilled his aesthetic aims. His famous preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ not only defined his mission as a writer, but became the creed for those who followed in his wake:

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.”

If you have ever read The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, then you have come as close as you can, while sitting in an armchair, to experiencing the wrath of the sea.

That year I also read the academics who championed and critiqued Conrad: F.R. Leavis, who included a chapter on Conrad and Henry James in his hallmark of literary criticism, The Great Tradition; Dorothy Van Ghent, and her Harvard colleague, Albert J. Guerard, who wrote a fine book-length study, Conrad the Novelist; also Freudian critics, Marxist critics and others of uncertain pedigree.

589659What I didn’t know was that one of the foremost living Conrad scholars, Ian Watt, was busy writing his own book, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, which appeared a few years later, in 1979. Watt planned to write a second work on Conrad’s 20th Century output, but this never came to fruition. Instead, shortly after his death, Cambridge University Press published Essays on Conrad (2000). In this collection you can see Watt building the base for the larger work, always with meticulous research and a deep-seated knowledge of his subject.

In the first essay, Watt elaborates Conrad’s core themes of alienation and commitment. Suspicious of Progress and Civilization, and all too aware of the animal within man, Conrad set his best stories in hostile environments and scrutinized his characters’ actions under duress. The ones that do right, the ones that survive, are rarely the progressive or the dreamer or the sophisticated or the bookish.

In Typhoon, for example, which Watt considers a comic masterpiece, Captain McWhirr’s ponderous approach to duty brings his ship safely through the storm. And at the moment of crisis for the ‘Narcissus’, the old sailor Singleton, by staying at the helm, steadies a mutinous crew. In these unimaginative, unlearned men, whose first duty is to their ships’ passengers and crew, Watt sees two Conradian moral imperatives: tenacity and solidarity in the face of “coercive circumstance.” That phrase is actually the one Watt used to describe his own situation as a prisoner of war on the River Kwai (see my previous post), where Colonel Toosey’s tenacity and sense of solidarity ensured his men’s survival, but it applies equally to the unwanted situations Conrad depicts in his fiction.

Conrad has ridden several waves of criticism since his death in 1924. His reputation crested after the Second World War, when his modernism and influence on next-generation writers, his psychological insights and existential themes were highlighted and hailed.

The trough may have occurred during the surge of multiculturalism in the late seventies, when the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe branded Conrad “a bloody racist,” citing his stereotyping and lack of compassion for the Congolese victims in Heart of Darkness. Watt argues otherwise, although he does not entirely succeed in dismissing Achebe’s criticism.

Conrad was certainly not a racist in any active, conscious sense. But he was a staunch patriot of his adopted country, and he did hold some of the prevailing biases that bolstered the British Empire. (It’s telling that Conrad refused to write an affidavit in support of his old acquaintance from the Congo, the anti-imperialist Irish nationalist Roger Casement, when he was accused of treason.) But Conrad also understood that an individual’s tenacity and sense of solidarity must embrace all of humanity—all of us in the boat, so to speak—or those two positive attributes risk becoming their flip-side negatives: selfishness and exclusion. That’s the lesson Jim learns when, for his own survival, he jumps from the listing ‘Patna’, leaving the passengers, Mecca-bound pilgrims, to fend for themselves.

Several critics have argued that Conrad’s fiction declined in his later years. Watt is not one of them. He finds masterpieces in all phases of Conrad’s output, and moments of stylistic brilliance in even the weakest works. Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Conrad: “He could not write badly, one feels, to save his life.”

For me, Conrad’s success depended on his subject matter. I would argue he could not write about women to save his life. His female characters, with the possible exception of Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent, are helpless, two-dimensional creatures of romantic stereotype. Whenever Conrad ventured away from the heart of darkness and into the heart of romance, as he did more frequently in his later years, the result—no matter how well written—was diminished.

Conrad wanted popular and financial success, and he believed that by following the course set by Henry James he might achieve it. But Conrad was a skeptical realist, not a dramatist of social mores and subtle gender wars; he was a former sea captain with little affinity for the feminine mind. Far more than some dubious racism (a word which, Watt points out, did not exist in his day), this was his greatest weakness as a writer.

But when he stuck to isolated men in exotic locales or men isolated by their political ideals, when he stuck to sailors and steamships, and most of all when he stuck to the sea—then, Conrad always makes you see. And it is everything.

* Conrad was not alone in the development of this first-person story-within-a-story technique. His good friend and neighbor Henry James used a similar narrative device in The Turn of the Screw, published the same year (1898) as Conrad’s story “Youth,” which introduced Marlow. But with Marlow we have a narrator-observer’s haunted reflections on the events told, not simply a narrator who serves as a go-between for another’s story, as in James’ ghost story. One produces a subjective sense of witness, the other a protective layer of ambiguity.

 

 

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Myth-making as denial of reality

About thirty years ago, I read an essay that was so good I pinched the book it was in from my sister. In truth, the book, an anthology of expository writing called the Norton Reader, had been assigned in one of her college courses and, after the class was over, she had abandoned it at home. So I was really only rescuing it from neglect.

The essay was “‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’ as Myth” by Ian Watt and was reprinted from a 1971 issue of the Berkshire Review. I knew nothing about the author except what the endnotes stated, that he was a professor of English at Stanford University and author of The Rise of the Novel. But his unique perspective and analysis impressed me, for as a young British lieutenant he was one of the prisoners of war who worked on the real two-hundred-mile stretch of railroad across Thailand and the bridges over the Kwai (there were actually two).

Real bridgeWatt’s experience enabled him to explain the origins and evolution of the River Kwai “myth.” He begins with a synopsis of the surrender to Japan of more than a hundred thousand British soldiers in Malaya and Singapore in 1942. He describes the Japanese Army’s organizational structure and attitudes toward prisoners, life in the prison camp and on work details, and how the senior British officer, Colonel Philip Toosey, saved lives by organizing the prisoners and by “handling” their Japanese captors, at least as well as a captive officer could in such harsh and demoralizing conditions.

Watt then traces how a Free French officer named Pierre Boulle, who served in Indochina during the war, heard of the British colonel and the building of the bridges. Boulle subsequently wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai, which was published in 1954. Boulle

Boulle’s fictional Colonel Nicholson is an infantile egomaniac obsessed with the means of the work and, as a result, he becomes an unwitting collaborator. According to Watt, he is much more a representation of French officers who called Boulle a traitor when they switched their allegiance to Vichy France than he is of the real Colonel Toosey.

As Watt states, the novel thematically explores “how the vast scale and complication of operations which are rendered possible, and are even in one sense required, by modern technology tend finally to destroy human meanings and purposes. The West is the master of its means, but not its ends.”

In David Lean’s 1957 Oscar-winning movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, which achieved great popular success and critical acclaim, the myth expands further and moves still farther from reality. The bridge becomes an engineering marvel, a cantilevered wooden fantasy, instead of the real iron-truss bridge built beside a temporary wooden bridge. And, most significantly, it is blown up at the end.

The movie, in contrast to the novel and in contradiction to the real lessons of survival learned by the prisoners, is about the institutional insanity of war and the irony of its senseless outcomes. (For Watt, the movie’s theme is made even more ironic by the facts of its making: the bridge for the movie was built not in Thailand, which didn’t look the part, but in Ceylon, at the cost of a quarter-million dollars, only to be destroyed along with a real train in that final audience-pleasing scene.)

For Watt, the further preposterousness of myth-making is the fact that tourists in Thailand go to see the real steel bridge and nearby cemeteries of the prisoners who died building it to feed a fantasy perpetrated by the movie.

Bridge-on-the-river-kwai1

Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson in the 1957 movie.

Pierre Boulle borrowed a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Victory for the epigraph to his novel: “No, it was not funny; it was rather pathetic; he was so representative of all the past victims of the great Joke. But it is by folly alone that the world moves, and so it is a respectable thing upon the whole. And, besides, he was what one would call a good man.”

Watt provides a plausible reason why Boulle may have made that choice—to emphasize the absurdity of the human condition in this, the dead-end of history. At the end of the essay, however, Watt returns to Conrad to defend the real Colonel Toosey: “a hero of the only kind we could afford then, and there. For he was led not by what he wanted to believe, but by what he knew: he knew that the world would not do his bidding; that he could not beat the Japanese; that on the Kwai—even more obviously than at home—we were for the most part prisoners of coercive circumstance.”

For Watt, the myth of the Kwai denies the reality Colonel Toosey represented, those two Conradian moral imperatives: work and restraint.

Note to the reader: The good news is that Ian Watt’s thought-provoking essay is still available, and you don’t have to find a forty-year-old edition of the Norton Reader to read it. It turns out that, until his death in 1999, Watt was one of the leading scholars on the English novel and, in particular, Joseph Conrad. In 2000, Cambridge University Press published his Essays on Conrad (which I will review another time); thankfully the publisher included this remarkable essay as the coda of that collection.

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Two years a slave

Tomorrow marks the start of my third year blogging. I use the term “slave” somewhat facetiously and certainly not in the word’s abhorrent primary meaning. But the second definition—working without remuneration—isn’t too far off, and a third meaning is even more accurate: being in thrall to something, an addict or devotee. For blogging is a beguiling habit. You put a thought, an image, or a question out there and wait. The reaction can be immediate or slow in coming, what you expected or a complete surprise. And yet, how addictive the process becomes—I blog, therefore I am.

I smile when I think of my original intention—a selfish one, really—for this blog: to create a place where readers of my fiction might learn more about the author. The inverse has happened. I receive much more from the blogosphere than I give back. Humor, sincerity, passion, diversity, friendship—they’re all here. So, while I do get to record my thoughts about books and other things that preoccupy me in this little space on the worldwide web, the generosity, kindness and creativity returned are far more extraordinary.

What I’m trying to say is, thank you to all who have read, liked, followed or commented here. But even more, thank you to all who write, paint, photograph, draw, translate, transcribe or whatever other creative thing you do on your blog that has kept me a slave to your art for the last two years. Please keep it coming!

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Arguably, our great loss

“Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only—to be defaced.” —Christopher Hitchens, from “The Swastika and the Cedar”

Any blogger who pretends to write about books (note to self) would do well to read the essays of the late Christopher Hitchens. Arguably, his last book to be published before his death from esophageal cancer in December 2011, is largely a collection of book reviews written for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The New Statesman, The Wilson Quarterly, and sundry newspapers here and in Britain. Most were written in the preceding ten years.

In its entirety, the book is a massive tribute to Hitchens’ eclectic erudition. The collection is a feast of brilliant, impassioned argument for anyone who holds views on American history, the British empire, literature, politics, the Left, the Right, famous authors, infamous dictators, religion, atheism, fascism, capitalism, journalism, Afghanistan, Iraq, torture, language, or popular culture. I may have left something out.

12618752Whether Hitchens is criticizing the West’s tolerance of North Korea’s psychotic theocracy, lamenting the deterioration of political campaign slogans, or reassessing the works of Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, or his good friend Martin Amis, what illuminates each essay is his objectivity, honesty and critical insight. In clear, engaging prose, Hitchens comes off as if he is conversing with an intelligent friend. (Thankfully, I read the book on my Kindle, since I frequently had to look up words he used; invariably they were pitch perfect.)

Hitchens honed his prose through decades of journalism, “pamphleteering” as he liked to call it. After attending Oxford, he began his career at The New Statesman, Britain’s left-leaning political affairs magazine (equivalent to The Nation in the U.S., to which he subsequently contributed as well).

In his memoir Hitch-22 (reprinted in 2011 with the poignant, unflinching preface he wrote after receiving his death sentence from the doctors), Hitchens charted the evolution of his political views from the antiwar-protesting Trotskyite of his Oxford days to the naturalized American advocate for democracy and pluralism in the post-9/11 world.

Much like George Orwell (whom he admired enough to write the book-length study, Why Orwell Matters), Hitchens experienced a political conversion that shaped everything he subsequently wrote, including the essays in Arguably.

Orwell of course went to Spain as a socialist to fight fascism, only to discover that totalitarian oppression was ingrained in both political systems. A bullet through the neck nearly muted that discovery forever, but Orwell survived and documented his experience in one of his finest works, Homage to Catalonia. He devoted the rest of his life, in works of allegory and essay, to warn the West of the inherent tyranny of political isms and the need to defend democracy and individual freedom from this threat at all cost.

7332753For Hitchens, doubts about the Marxist Left first surfaced during travels to Cuba, Portugal and Poland in the sixties and seventies. When, in 1982, Argentina’s military dictatorship attempted to seize the Falkland Islands, unlike many of his colleagues, Hitchens agreed with the Iron Lady’s decision to send the British fleet to defend the islands, not for the timeworn reasons of empire but to defeat a tyranny.

And, in 1988, when the Ayatollah issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, Hitchens condemned the prevarications of many liberal intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders and launched a staunch public defense of his close friend. As he wrote in Hitch-22, “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship…”

9/11, however, was Hitchens’ Spain—the crystalline solidification of his evolving convictions. Just as Orwell determined party-line Communism to be the great totalitarian threat of his day, so Hitchens perceived fundamentalist religion, especially the intolerant strain of Islam espoused by Al Qaida and the Taliban, as the new totalitarian threat to Western humanism. “They claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates,” he wrote in the introduction to Arguably. “Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.”

Hitchens’ wholehearted support for the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein troubled many of his liberal friends, but for him this stance was consistent with his revulsion for tyranny in any shape or form. Like Churchill in the thirties directing his rhetoric against the rising tide of National Socialism, Hitchens was willing to become a political outlier in order to warn against the new intolerant fascism he saw in extremist Islam.

I bring up this backstory only because Hitchens applies the same consistent logic to all of the essays in this collection. You may agree or disagree with this masterful polemicist, but always you will find him adhering to a high standard of debate, basing his arguments on empiricism and laying them out with incisive wit. And I guarantee that no matter how much or how little you agree with him, you will come away from Arguably with a long list of books to read or reread, a few new words, and an invigorated desire to grapple with the important issues of our world. Indeed, we have lost a great pamphleteer.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

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In praise of paperbacks

Remember when people, especially publishers, worried that the advent of the e-book would bring about the demise of the printed book? Only a few years later, that worry seems rather silly. As sales statistics bear out, both formats will co-exist for a long time to come.

Who can argue with the convenience of e-books, especially when traveling or wanting something instantly? But I also love the sensory appeal of printed books—their look, touch and smell; the way they beg to be opened and the way you can leaf through them randomly or with intent. And, although the dictionary and search functions of e-books are fantastic, entering marginalia in one is hardly as easy or as enjoyable as in a physical book (provided you have something to write with).

And yet, people still seem determined to kill off the paperback. I don’t understand it. If anything, despite recent sales figures to the contrary, I would predict the death of the hardcover book. At least for general fiction and non-fiction.

Once upon a time, you bought a hardcover book if you couldn’t wait to read it, or if you planned to keep it for years to come in your private library (you know, that stately room in your familial manor that reflected your education, social status and cultural devotion, now dubbed the media room), or if you were a librarian dealing with the wear and tear from multiple borrowers.

Recently, I read about a new library in Texas that contains no books at all. In effect, it is a computer hotspot with online access to e-books and e-zines. Give our digital age a few more years, and I suspect that will be the norm rather than the exception. The great democratic notion of public libraries full of books will become as quaint as public polling stations full of voting booths.

The demise of book-filled libraries may be the kiss of death for hardcover books, as well.

As if they sense it, publishers in these micro-margin, cost-cutting times have taken action. Hardcover books have risen in price and deteriorated in quality. These days, their spines often crack or tear, their cardboard covers warp and their pages feel like they are made of Kleenex and recycled soda bottles. Increasingly, the disadvantages of hardcover books—their size, heft and expense—outweigh their merits (especially if a book is only read once, as most are).

Meanwhile, paperbacks, especially trade paperbacks, have gotten better. Perhaps because they are traditionally the re-issue of hardcover editions, paperbacks tend to have more design harmony. More thought seems to go into branding the author and the imprint.

dettaglio_226

A fine Europa Editions reprint

My current favorite American paperback publishers are Europa Editions and New York Review Books.

In the case of Europa, their sturdy covers come with gatefolds front and back, more like European books than the dime-store paperbacks of old. Their cover designs are simple, and the interior layout is refined: the off-white paper is a heavy uncoated stock, and the typefaces are well chosen for legibility, with large fonts and generous leading.

NYRB are winners for their understated design, modern color palettes, quality paper and sturdy construction (not to mention their interesting author lineup). You can always tell when you have an NYRB or Europa Editions book in hand. They are a pleasure to hold and to read, and they will last a lifetime of multiple readings.

NYRB's distinctive design.

NYRB’s distinctive design.

With the emerging trend to publish the e-book version simultaneously, that publishers still issue a hardcover edition first, before the paperback, seems backward, a throwback to ye olde days. Publishers wonder why fewer books are bought each year, and they grumble about the terrible cost (not to mention waste) of remainders. But if they offered a high-quality paperback first edition instead (and saved the hardcover for the reprinting of time-tested literature), I believe they would have a winning formula. More often than not, my first choice would still be a physical book over an e-book, provided I didn’t have to wait months for its release and it was offered at a reasonable price. I bet plenty of other readers would choose it, too.

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A brief life, perpetual despair

In Letters to a Young Novelist, his smart little book on the craft of writing, Mario Vargas Llosa describes A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti as a brilliant example of the Chinese box, a narrative technique using shifts in space, time and reality to create stories within stories.

“From a technical point of view,” says Vargas Llosa, “this magnificent novel, one of the subtlest and most artful ever written in Spanish, revolves entirely around the artifice of the Chinese box, which Onetti manipulates masterfully to create a world of delicate superimposed and intersecting planes, in which the boundary between fiction and reality (between life and dreams or desires) is dissolved.”

High praise from such a well-versed master of narrative form (who used the same technique to create his own delightful intersections in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter).

Published in 1950 after seven years of labor, Onetti’s breakthrough masterpiece is a dark, complex and compelling urban novel that takes place in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and the fictional town of Santa María. The middle-aged central narrator, Juan María Brausen, is facing the triple psychological shock of his wife’s breast cancer, their failing marriage and the loss of his job at an advertising agency. But that is only the surface reality.

4368456Alone in his apartment while his wife recovers in hospital, Brausen eavesdrops through his bedroom wall on the woman next door, a prostitute named La Queca. Becoming obsessed with what he hears and imagines, he invents a false identity as the thuggish pimp Juan María Arce in order to enter La Queca’s life. It’s never made clear if this action by Brausen as Arce is real or imagined, but it most certainly seems real.

Here he is, sneaking into her apartment one night:

“La Queca’s apartment door was open, the key ring was hanging in the lock, the light from the hallway streamed in and died against the legs of an armchair and the design of a small carpet. I didn’t know what I was doing until it was done.”

Brausen may not know what he’s doing, but Onetti certainly does. He achieves the creepy voyeuristic reality of Brausen’s action by amassing physical detail: “the bathroom door was open and the greenish color of tiles gleamed smooth and liquid”…“there was a crumpled girdle on the floor between the balcony door and the table”…“the big bed, same as mine, placed like an extension of the bed in which Gertrudis [his wife] was sleeping, seemed prepared for night.”

Onetti ups the tension of this watershed moment and further enhances the new reality (and elaborates the novel’s theme) by precisely documenting Brausen’s sensations as he advances into the room: “I began to move across the waxed floor, without noise or anxiety, feeling contact with a small happiness at each slow step. I was calm and excited each time my foot touched the floor, believing that I was moving into a brief life in which there was not enough time to become involved, to repent, or to age.”

Meanwhile, in need of money, Brausen is also developing a screenplay, and as its plot takes form, he enters the mind of his principal character, Díaz Grey, a doctor in Santa María who, enamored of a deceitful married woman named Elena Sala, enables her morphine addiction.

In her critical essay “A Mirror Game: Diffraction of Identity in La vida breve,” Linda S. Maier notes that Onetti’s novel mimics Borges’ description of life as “an eternal and confused tragicomedy in which the roles and masks change, but not the actors.” Indeed, as Brausen explains to Gertrudis, who struggles to comprehend the state of their marriage and her husband’s growing physical and psychological distance: “It’s something else, it’s that people believe they’re condemned to a single life until death. And they are only condemned to a soul, to a manner of being. One can live many times, many more or less long lives.”

As Brausen is beginning to recognize, he may be able to live other, invented lives, but his despairing soul  is “condemned” to remain the same, and in Onetti’s world there is no comedy to relieve this soul’s tragic trajectory.

In the second part of the book, Brausen the narrator gradually disappears as his alter-egos assume a greater and greater presence in a plot that thickens with lies, murder and suicide; the mirror of invention reflects back a nightmare of psychic oblivion. By the last chapter it is Díaz Grey who is narrating the story.

Onetti-682x1024Born in Montevideo, Onetti was one of the Generation of ’45, a group of writers known for its nihilism that emerged in Uruguay and Argentina during the politically tumultuous 1930s-40s. All of Onetti’s novels contain a bleak existentialism, but the technically complex narrative and noir atmosphere of A Brief Life create a kind of morphine-dream confusion, a disorientation that becomes frightening as Brausen slides into his other lives.

Because of its despairing darkness, it took me six months to finish A Brief Life. Brausen’s world (or is it Onetti’s?) is a loveless, hopeless, violent, sadomasochistic, and misogynistic prison without reprieve. As a reader, I could only live in it briefly. But the book’s brilliant structure and narrative drive, Onetti’s technical mastery and nuanced commentary on the mirrorlike relationship between art and reality, between the artist and his creation, compelled me to stay with it to its troubling end.

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The other Mexico

Letizia of reading interrupted led me to The Book of Lamentations (Oficio de tinieblas) by Rosario Castellanos. Last year, when I noted that Elena Poniatowska had won the Cervantes Prize, Letizia asked if I knew of any other modern Mexican women writers. I needed to ask some of my better-read friends, and the writer most often mentioned was Castellanos.

castellanos

Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974)

A native of Chiapas, the southern state best known today for the 1994 Zapatista uprising led by Subcomandante Marcos, Rosario Castellanos was a poet, novelist and journalist who came to prominence during the Latin American Boom. Perhaps because so many writers of that generation achieved worldwide recognition—García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carpentier, Cortázar, Borges, Fuentes and Asturias—Castellanos, one of the few women writers of the generation, was somewhat overshadowed.

Perhaps, too, her style conflicted with the magical realism they espoused. For Castellanos was a realist, a feminist, and a champion of indigenous cultures that remained largely voiceless in the worlds of politics and literature.

536848The Book of Lamentations, her last novel, was published in 1962. It is a work of her maturity, solidifying and extending themes she explored in her early stories, novels, and poetry.

Using a third-person omniscient voice more reminiscent of the great 19th Century novels of Tolstoy and Balzac than the narrative experiments of the Boom, Castellanos creates a sweeping epic about the age-old conflict between the Ladinos (descendants of Spanish blood) and the Maya, specifically the Tzotzil-speaking people of Chiapas.

Borrowing a grisly incident from an uprising in 1869, Castellanos places her story in the era of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), whose ambition was to fulfill the promise of the Revolution by distributing land to the poor and indigenous peoples of Mexico.

The Ladinos, however, still owned the land, maintained power through corrupt local magistrates, and stubbornly resisted any change. As portrayed by Castellanos, their ingrained racism and blindness to the plight of the indigenous poor is reminiscent of attitudes in the Deep South before integration.

By modernizing the incidents leading up to the rebellion and its dramatic outcomes, including a gruesome crucifixion, Castellanos depicts a recurring story of domination and submission that began with the Conquest and foreshadowed the political agenda of the still unresolved Zapatista rebellion.

A one-time member of the provincial land-owning class, Castellanos moved to Mexico City as a young girl. She wrote poetry from an early age and after studying at the national university worked for the National Indigenous Institute. From this remove, she preserved a compassion for the victims of her story, Ladino and indigenous alike. Power, blindness, and cruelty are not endemic to one side alone.

The 18th Century church of San Juan Chamula is the site of a critical scene in Castellanos’ novel.

While other Boom writers explored the metaphorical uses of magical realism, Castellanos kept to the constraints of realism to tap the truly magical perspective of the Maya. In the Mayan world, sacred stones can talk and a wooden cross—that strangely syncretic symbol—may suggest cultural redemption through violence. The power of myth, as told in the classic Mayan book of creation, the Popol Vuh, lives on in oral tradition. Time is circular, and death leads to life and death again. As a poet thinking in metaphor, Castellanos understands these beliefs, but as a novelist she remains an outsider looking in.

This outsider’s perspective also empowers her sharp criticism of the Ladinos she knew so well—the hypocrisy, ignorance and contempt that prevailed in the provincial world she left behind.

Castellanos described herself as natively shy and emotionally distant; she perceived herself as an outsider who found escape in writing. This helps explain her taste for narrative omniscience and her pessimism that there would ever be a bridge between the two cultures she wrote about. Her fine novel in the end is a tragedy, as the epigraph she chose, a quote from the Popol Vuh, foretells:

Whereas your glory is no longer great;
Whereas your might exists no more
—and though without much right to veneration—
your blood will still prevail a while…
 
All the children of dawn, the dawn’s offspring,
will not belong to your people;
Only the chatterboxes will yield themselves to you.
 
People of Harm, of War, of Misery,
you who did the wrong,
weep for it.

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Tenth of December

TenthDecember_interesting-angle.jpgYou could almost hear the turbines revving at Random House earlier this year as the publishing behemoth kicked off its marketing campaign for the release of George Saunders’ newest story collection, Tenth of December. Clearly, the commercial juggernaut determined to make Mr. Saunders a household name.

“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Imagine having to live up to that embarrassingly presumptuous headline. But that was what a New York Times Magazine profile, timed with the book’s release and surely pitched by a Random House press agent, declared.

George Saunders

George Saunders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Saunders is probably accustomed to such pressure; he has lived with the “genius” tag since 2006, when he received a MacArthur Foundation grant. And quite possibly he knew his book was pretty good. After all, it’s not every day the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, and Zadie Smith blurb pithy praise for a book…or is it?

The good news is that, despite his publisher’s heavy-handed campaign to tell us that Important Literature had arrived, the book is good. Okay, maybe not the best book I read this year, but darned good.

As with most collections, some of the stories were better than others. The good ones stood out as kind-hearted, sharp and funny portals into contemporary life. Saunders is best at capturing the inane self-absorption of teenagers, as he does in “Victory Lap” and the eponymous story, “Tenth of December.” He’s also good with the anxious/frustrated sadness that verges on desperation/despair of parents dealing with the complexities of modern/futuristic families, as he does in “Home” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”

The latter, with its weird sci-fi bent and generous humor, is perhaps the best story in the bunch. Saunders explores, without pretension but with heart, the big questions of moral philosophy–our freedom to screw up, our right to die, the meaning of individuality, the meaning of community. His alternate realities, as in “Al Roosten,” and near futures, as in “Escape from Spiderhead,” are all too close to you-know-what.

As a stylist Saunders is a minimalist striving to capture the abbreviated vernacular of our modern American consciousness. Here he is in “Victory Lap” projecting the thoughts of a teenage girl who was nearly kidnapped:

For months afterward she had nightmares in which Kyle brought the rock down. She was on the deck trying to scream his name but nothing was coming out. Down came the rock. Then the guy had no head. The blow just literally dissolved his head. Then his body tumped over and Kyle turned to her with this heartbroken look of, My life is over. I killed a guy.

Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head. Or you’re driving and there’s this old guy on crutches, and you go, to Mr. Feder, your Driver’s Ed teacher, Should I swerve? And he’s like, Uh, probably. But then you hear the big clunk and Feder makes a negative mark in his book.

At times I would have liked to see him extend his vocal range; his characters/narrators tend to think in a similar fragmentary syntax, and for me they started to blend together. Their individuality seemed overpowered by Saunders’ own quirky voice. But that’s a small quibble.

Truthfully, I would have enjoyed Tenth of December much more if the publisher and its collaborators hadn’t tried so hard to tell me how great it was going to be. My gripe is not with George Saunders, who is a clever and polished satirist, but with his handlers, uh, I mean, publisher.

Now that he has finished his contractual book tour and is back at Syracuse University teaching and writing, I hope Mr. Saunders will consider focusing his satirical lens on the publishing industry that nearly set him up. Maybe next time he’ll tell his publisher to stuff  the hype. Let the book stand for itself. As if they’d buy into that–it doesn’t sell books, and besides, how would we readers know what to think?

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The enigma of T.E. Lawrence

After watching David Lean’s 1962 Oscar-winning movie, Lawrence of Arabia, I became fascinated by T.E. Lawrence. As a high-school kid I slogged through Lawrence’s expansive and detailed memoir of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and followed up with some of his other writings, even his translation of the Odyssey.

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabi...

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) led the Arab revolt forces in the Battle of Aqaba. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American journalist Lowell Thomas, whose camera crew captured some of Lawrence’s exploits during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, was largely responsible for the creation of the Lawrence of Arabia legend. In sold-out post-war lectures, Thomas depicted Lawrence—in his flowing Bedouin robes waging a guerrilla war for Arab freedom against the Ottoman Turks—as a dashing figure, a chivalric knight. The romantic legend appealed to a war-weary Britain. Lawrence’s own popular account, Revolt in the Desert, only fed the fever and became a bestseller.

But the psychological price of his war exploits and celebrity soon caught up with him. Lawrence became shy of publicity and sought escape in an ascetic’s life. He changed his name to John Hume Ross and entered the Royal Air Corps as a private, only to be publicly exposed. Forced to change his name again, he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps as T.E. Shaw. He recounted this post-war military experience in his memoir, The Mint.

When he died in 1935, aged 46, after crashing his motorcycle to avert two boys on bicycle, the Lawrence of Arabia legend became secure. “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time,” Winston Churchill said. “We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history.”

Sooner or later someone is bound to challenge such hyperbole; in Lawrence’s case it took about thirty more years.

In 1969, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia by Phillip Knightly and Colin Simpson attempted to pry beneath the legend. Based on classified documents released by Britain’s Public Records Office in 1968 and on interviews with people who played roles in critical episodes of Lawrence’s life, the book proffered more questions than answers. As its sensational jacket copy states: “Archaeologist, author, savant, soldier, intimate of poets and kings, an intellectual who was also a man of action…or pathological liar, homosexual, Irish nobody, traitor, a Foreign Office lackey in fancy dress?”

More documents, including many of Lawrence’s wartime dispatches, have since been declassified, and more research done on the war in Arabia and the disastrous 1919 peace conference in Paris that determined the region’s fate. Their addition has enabled journalist Scott Anderson to provide a balanced reassessment of Lawrence’s influence and accomplishments in his new book, Lawrence in Arabia: Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

Lawrence in ArabiaAs the subtitle promises, the book’s scope is broader than a biography of the man. The Lawrence of Arabia legend (as if an Englishman, despite the robes, could ever be of Arabia) is recast in the context of the ambivalent role Lawrence played in what was essentially an imperial gambit.

Anderson weaves the story of Lawrence and the Arab Revolt with those of an international cast of characters representing the many factions wrestling for a piece of this oil-rich land. Primary focus is on the rivalry of the European powers and the Zionist movement that mostly sprang from Europe and targeted a homeland in Palestine.

Front and center are the political machinations of the British and French, in the guise of diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, whose secret agreement would seal the fates of Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran—assuming the Triple Entente won the war and wrested these territories from the decaying Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally.

English: Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduce...

Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduced from http://www.passia.org with permission.

Where did Lawrence stand on this land grab? At first he and the Cairo-based intelligence unit he worked for advocated a policy of Arab liberation under British tutelage. They wanted to nullify French claims on Syria (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel) by keeping the French out of the Arabian campaign. To this end, Lawrence’s superiors encouraged Emir Hussein of the Hashemite clan to revolt with the promise of an independent Arab nation that included Syria and the Arabian Peninsula.

Lawrence was sent to join the Arab guerrillas to ensure that British interests prevailed. But, according to Anderson, Lawrence’s growing wariness of the political machinations taking place in London and Paris to undermine their promise to the Arabs led him to secretly reveal to Emir Hussein’s son, Prince Faisal, the nature of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Was this treason or a shrewd manipulation to spur the Arab prince to press his campaign toward the capture of Damascus?

As Anderson makes clear, Britain was not the only nation, and Lawrence hardly the only emissary, in the region conniving for position. From Jerusalem, the German spymaster Curt Prüffer instigated Islamic jihad in British-ruled Egypt. Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn ran a spy network in Turkish-controlled Palestine to aid the British, whom he believed the best guarantors of a Jewish homeland, while his colleague and sometime adversary, Chiam Weizmann worked the corridors of power in London. Even the Standard Oil Company, through its representative William Yale, was negotiating oil rights with the Turks while providing oil to both sides of the conflict. Later, after America entered the war, Yale would keep the U.S. State Department abreast of British and French military and political maneuvers.

Anderson succeeds in showing how the duplicitous and cavalier decisions of crumbling empires at war brought about the muddle of the modern Middle East. Lawrence, who understood the religious and tribal complexities of the region, failed to win his case for an independent Arabia including Syria. After the capture of Damascus, which effectvely ended the Arabian campaign, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement became public, Lawrence left the Middle East, never to return.

Suffering from what Anderson describes as post-traumatic stress disorder, this brilliant, arrogant and ascetic warrior-scholar believed he had betrayed the Arabs he had fought beside. “Blast the Lawrence side of things,” Lawrence wrote in a letter using the alias T.E. Shaw. “He was a cad I’ve killed.”

Anderson tells a compelling story that brings greater political and psychological insight to the Lawrence legend, but the enigma of the man endures.

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Poniatowska wins Cervantes Prize

Earlier this year I wrote about Elena Poniatowska’s masterful study of the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City. Today the jury for the Premio Cervantes, the most renowned literary prize in the Spanish-speaking world, awarded this year’s prize to Poniatowska. She is the first Mexican woman and only the fourth woman ever to win the prestigious award.

Spanish Minister of Education and Culture José Ignacio Wert cited Poniatowska’s “brilliant career in various literary genres,” above all the work she did as a young journalist concerned about human rights, the defense of freedom and the fight against corruption.

“Her work stands out for its strong commitment to contemporary history. Author of emblematic works that describe the twentieth century from an international and inclusive perspective, Poniatowska is one of the most powerful voices in contemporary Spanish literature,” said Wert.

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